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In wake of asbestos loan, a renewed call for global ban

Less than a month after the Quebec government announced it would lend $58 million to help re-start a struggling asbestos mine, scientists from around the world have renewed the call for a global ban on the toxic substance.

In a statement released by the Joint Policy Committee of the Societies of Epidemiology, 150 public health organizations that include researchers and epidemiologists from at least 20 countries called for a ban on the mining, use and export of all form of asbestos. The material causes various serious illnesses including mesothelioma, a deadly disease that attacks the lining of the lungs, heart and abdomen.

Canada's CBC News reports that the group includes Canadian, U.S. and international epidemiology organizations who working together for first time.

"The body of evidence is now so overwhelming and it was time to step up and come together as a group," Colin Soskolne, past-president of the Canadian Society of Epidemiology and Biostatistics, told CBC News.

Dr. Stanley Weiss, chair of the Joint Policy Committee, said that continued use of asbestos will lead to “a public health disaster of asbestos-related illness and premature death for decades to come, repeating the epidemic we are witnessing today in industrialized countries that used asbestos in the past.”

According to the World Health Organization, asbestos-related illness kills more than 100,000 people each year, and some 125 million people worldwide are at risk of exposure in the workplace. Exposure to asbestos fibers has long been linked to mesothelioma, as well as asbestosis and lung cancer.

The $58 million government loan announced in June will boost production of the Jeffrey Mine, in Asbestos, Quebec, at a time when Canada is under increasing international pressure to ban asbestos exports to developing countries, where scientists predict an epidemic of asbestos-related disease over the next several decades.

More than 50 countries, including all nations in the European Union, have banned the use and importation of asbestos, which for decades was used to make fire retardant coatings, concrete, bricks, pipe and ceiling insulation, drywall, flooring and roofing materials and many consumer products.

But poor and less-developed countries such as India and the Philippines continue to use the substance and rely on Canada, once the world's largest exporter of asbestos, to meet demand.

Meanwhile, Canada has angered public-health advocates around the world by repeatedly blocking an international effort to place chrysotile asbestos on a list of toxic substances subject to a United Nations treaty called the Rotterdam Convention. Annex III of the convention requires exporters to adhere to a process called Prior Informed Consent, which gives importing countries the right to refuse shipments of hazardous materials.

In May, The Lancet, a British medical journal, explored the growing international furor over Canada and asbestos. Canada has been exporting asbestos for more than 100 years, even as it strictly regulated use of the material within its own borders. Canada prohibits the use of asbestos in most products, yet continues to export about 150,000 tons of the toxic substance annually to developing countries that have few, if any, regulations to protect workers and the public from exposure.

Some government officials and proponents of the asbestos industry have long maintained that asbestos can be used safely if handled properly. But Soskolne said, based on overwhelming scientific evidence, there is “no doubt” about the deadly effects of asbestos.

"The vast majority of people who are not in the pocket of industry …we all agree that the time has come to expose the controversy as a non-controversy,” he said. “Promoting deceit is immoral and we need to take a higher ground than the one we are taking … and help the people in those mining communities to retool and develop different industries.”



About The Author

Mesothelioma Options Help Center staff writer Brian Wallstin is an award-winning freelance journalist based in Concord, N.H. Brian previously worked at the Missourian from 2003-2009 as a columnist and city editor, and served as an assistant professor at the University of Missouri School of Journalism. Prior to that, he worked as a staff reporter at the Houston Press.